The Incentives Associated With Becoming a Machine Entity

In the near future it will be possible to build artificial bodies, and some decades after that it will become possible to gradually replace the biology of our brains with more durable and capable nanomachinery. A diverse industry of brain-computer interfaces and artificial intelligences will arise and come to maturity along the way. Will we in fact largely become a species of intelligent machines within the next few centuries? By this I mean designed machines, as opposed to the evolved machines we presently are: entities that are human, but very distant from our present forms, functions, and limitations. When you design the machinery, rather than just working with what you have been given, an enormous range of possibilities open up. For one thing, even very complex machines can be designed to be far more robust and easily maintained than our biology, allowing a person-turned-machine-intelligence the option of an extremely long life expectancy.

Will there be a population-scale rush away from biology towards the new and better options for bodies and brains as soon as they become a practical concern? Some people think so, and I believe it is an inevitable transition given the far greater capabilities that could be provided by being more than merely biological. Perhaps not a rush, but a transition over time, leaving behind a disparate collection of Amish-like groups and poor communities that coexist and trade with the transitioned human societies. On the large scale people follow incentives: they buy the new tools that improve life, boost economic output, and add new options at an affordable price. Those groups with the greatest economic output grow to become the cultural mainstream over time. There's no reason to think that any of this will change, no matter whether society is running on silicon or neurons. Here is an interesting thought, though:

Aubrey de Grey on Ending Aging and the Human Future

I spoke with Aubrey briefly on the topic of the future of humanity, and the potential scenarios (often discussed in the world of transhumanism and futurism) that might involve moving our human conscious into other substrates, giving us long-lasting silicon bodies and potentially moving our minds into computers that are more durable and reliable that our current biological grey matter.

It is Aubrey's belief that the desire to leave our biological substrate will diminish as the "down-sides" of remaining purely biological go down. In other words, when we can more-or-less live forever in our present bodies, Aubrey believes that we will likely not wish to remove ourselves from them. The negative aspects of "being made of meat" - as he aptly put it - would be mitigated by an absence of disease and an absence of the recurring damage which is the origin of aging itself.

Another way of looking at the incentives of moving from biology to machinery is that it is not just a matter of chasing something better, but also a matter of leaving something undesirable. Discomfort is a great motivator, and evading the terrible suffering and death caused by aging is important to many of those who look with hope to a transhumanist future. Given an industry of rejuvenation medicine and complete control over aging, disease, and pain, however, being a standard issue biological human begins to look like an indefinitely comfortable existence - barring rare fatal accidents, of course, but who goes through life thinking that will happen to them?

So the argument here is that medicine, and specifically the defeat of degenerative aging, will alter the incentive landscape in a way that leads more people to choose to remain biological, even when it is possible to become a machine intelligence with greater capabilities and durability. My estimate of the timelines is that rejuvenation will be a going concern a long way prior to the point at which slow, safe replacement of the brain's neurons with nanomachinery is possible. It's possible that the increased comfort provided by the removal of age-related suffering and death will slow down progress towards ways to move biology to machinery.

But we shall see. It is interesting to think about these things, but important not to lose sight of the fact that researchers still need to build the means to reverse degenerative aging. There are detailed plans to show what needs to be done in order to rejuvenate the old, there are plenty of researchers ready to jump in and perform the work if given funding, but resources and public interest are - as ever - lacking. The future only stays fascinating if you remain alive to see it, so consider helping to speed progress towards the means of human life extension.


The next step beyond SENS and genetically engineered stem cell rejuvenation will be the gradual replacement of existing cells with those based on synthetic biology. This will be the trendy thing to do around 2060-2070. Complete replacement with non-biological nanotechnology is unlikely in this century or the next as it is not clear that non-biological (e.g. "dry") nanotechnology is even possible. If it is, it will probably show up as an option in the 22nd century. I regard uploading as a fantasy.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at June 7th, 2013 10:12 PM

I'm skeptical about the possibility of complex nonbiological nanomachines being viable. With biology the machinery is easily disassembled and recycled, but a complex device filled with gears and cogs would face serious repair issues as disassembly would be far more complex, if repairs are needed with relative frequency it would be a no-go.

Posted by: coolball at June 9th, 2013 12:49 PM

Abelard uploading is total fantasy, shows a total lack of understanding of modern cognitive science. It also completely disregards that there still is a lot left to understand about consciousness. The most achievable transhuman tech for a large majority of people on the planet are things like SENS next maybe AGI. Transhumanists are wasting time and money thinking otherwise.

Posted by: Louis Burke (@LaochCailiuil) at June 10th, 2013 6:36 AM

My preferred ideal would be to:

1) make periodic backup copies of the biological me,

2) upload at least one version of me into silicon and/or other substrates,

3) keep the biological me intact for as long as it makes sense to do so.

I'm rather conservative and believe in having backups of myself. I'd also prefer to get several versions of me running on different hardware that was robust to different catastrophic events and preferrably in different geographical locations. (Ideally, one or two off-planet.)

Abelard: I consider the biggest problem with uploading to be getting the required data out of the current biological systems, which is made particularly difficult if you want to keep the original alive as well. I hardly consider that fantasy though - merely "quite difficult".

Louis: while I agree that SENS and AGI are probably the 'most achievable transhuman tech' at the current time, I find your belief that 'uploading is a total fantasy' to be absurd. What is absurd about it? It's certainly possible, and would require a change to the laws of physics to make it impossible.

Posted by: Dennis Towne at June 10th, 2013 11:41 AM

Usually when I see comments like "uploading is a fantasy," I can only guess that the person has a deep aversion to the idea. It's not a technical objection, it's just an emotional response to the idea of their minds and consciousness not being mysterious, unexplainable magic like they want it to be. Sorry to say, but computationalism has been, and still is by far the most widely accepted philosophy of mind among contemporary philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists. Heck, there's an entire scientific field called computational neuroscience, which is based on the very notion that every function the brain performs is computable.

Your mind is analogous to neural software, and your brain is hardware. The good news is that this means minds are substrate-independent, and that we could in principle transfer our minds to machines.

Posted by: Michael at June 10th, 2013 6:06 PM

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